Toward the New Middle Ages

If I were to say “the 21st Century could end up looking politically very similar to the 12th Century“, you’d probably think it a fairly grim prediction. But it’s actually more optimistic than it looks at first glance. Take it away, Parag Khanna [via MetaFilter]:

This was a truly multi-polar world. Both ends of Eurasia and the powers in between called their own shots, just as in our own time China, India and the Arab/Islamic community increasingly do as well. There is another reason why the metaphor is apt. In medieval times, the Crusades, and the Silk Road, linked Eurasia in the first global trading system […]

Now, globalisation is again doing much the same, diffusing power away from the west in particular, but also from states and towards cities, companies, religious groups, humanitarian non-governmental organisations and super-empowered individuals, from terrorists to philanthropists. This force of entropy will not be reversed for decades – if not for centuries. As was the case a millennium ago, diplomacy now takes place among anyone who is someone; its prerequisite is not sovereignty but authority.

Some see contrary trends in the light of the financial crisis. But given the power of the forces pushing a new medievalism, it is too simple to speak of a “return of the state” evident in the bail-out of Wall Street and the stimulus packages of governments. Far more revealing about the future is the crumbling of most of the post-colonial world from Africa to the Middle East to South Asia, where over-population, corrupt governance, ethnic grievances and collapsing infrastructure are pushing many states towards failure.


The only missing piece, of course, is America. The Middle Ages was pre-Atlantic. Yet today we have the legacy superpower of the US, located in the new world. If the European Union today plays the part of the Holy Roman Empire, then the US is the new Byzantium, facing both east and west while in a state of relative decline. The Byzantines lasted for many centuries beyond their material capability, through shrewd diplomacy and deception rather than by force.

This new world will mean huge challenges, for the west in particular. But if the US applies a genuinely Byzantine strategy, it has a good chance of stopping a slide into conflict. And remember that, despite its bleak reputation, the Middle Ages was actually an era of great invention and discovery – and one which eventually gave way to a great Renaissance too. As we witness today’s great power grievances mount and fear another world of war, we must remember the same is possible today.

Something to chew over, especially for those who still talk of the US in terms of global political leadership. You can choose to play for all or nothing, or you can play for a place at the table… and the same applies for everyone else.

One thought on “Toward the New Middle Ages”

  1. Someone’s straining to find a use for a useless history degree.

    I can see the slightly more multipolarism of the Now when viewed in the light of the Middle Ages. But European Union as the Holy Roman Empire? Rome’s burning before it ever made it to Istanbul, looks like. (cough PIGS falling to pieces, “austerity measures”)

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